Spanning the years between her debut and Blue, this 122-song set documents the hard work of exploration, revision, and rejection that shaped the songwriter's first masterpiece. It is a humanizing wonder.
When the drummer Russ Kunkel was just 21, Joni Mitchell arrived at his garage apartment in Laurel Canyon to play him a few new tunes alone. It was the summer of 1970, and Mitchell had slowly been drifting toward real stardom on the strength of three albums and hit renditions of her songs by the likes of Judy Collins and Tom Rush. Kunkel, meanwhile, had already played with Bob Dylan, B.B. King, and Mitchell's new beau, James Taylor.
But as he told me in April 2021 - just over 50 years since he first heard the tunes that would become Blue - he was a touch starstruck, dumbfounded that Mitchell would not only deign to perform for him but also ask him to join in. Her confidence and control, however, calmed him as he drummed along on his knees and bongos. When he arrived in the studio months later, he again followed her cool lead. "It was so easy, because Joni is such an amazing rhythm player," he told me. "She dictated the grooves. I just listened."
That sense of ease is a pernicious theme in discussions of Mitchell's first six or so albums, as though their songs just arrived as gifts. Enchanted, inspired, divine, genius: Mitchell has invariably been portrayed as such during her era of intense personal upheaval, her own moment of putting blood on the tracks. It's as if her preternaturally graceful playing and singing on record meant she were simply some blessed conduit, not a serious craftsperson off record.
At its best, the second volume of the Joni Mitchell Archives - a titanic effort to sort through six decades of her musical dustbin, beginning last year with the innocence-losing early days of Volume 1 - dispels such notions of effortless grace or any other divine spark. It, instead, documents Mitchell's deliberate, determined progress as both songwriter and performer. She toils over tunes just to discard them. She wrestles with minuscule but monumental shifts in language. She tries complicated arrangements only to clear them away like brambles. Meanwhile, onstage, she emerges as a chameleonic charmer, able to adapt to any night's assorted demands.
With these Archives, Mitchell joins the recent ranks of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, songwriters who have been reductively deified as touched geniuses for far too long and who are showing their work through massive troves of old recordings that dispel those notions of effortless perfection. They have revealed themselves as working craftspeople, made "divine" only by a fawning music press and rapacious record companies. We are haunted by the illusion of their presumed untouchability even now, still elevating gifts and grifts as opposed to craft and commitment. It's delightful to see Mitchell put truth to that festering lie. Indeed, these 122 tracks capture Mitchell at the moment she went from hitting singles and the occasional triple to clearing the bases with routine grand slams. Spanning the three years between her debut, Song to a Seagull, and her landmark fourth album, Blue, Volume 2 is a monument to real effort.
Nowhere is this clearer than "A Case of You," her unsparing portrait of love's sweet poison that's so canonical it's been covered nearly 500 times. It debuts here as part of the Blue demos cut in Los Angeles' A&M Studios in the summer of 1970. The song is mostly there - its staccato dulcimer sway, its "Oh, Canada!" outburst, its defenseless moment where she prepares to bleed. The first verse, though, isn't. "You're just as silly as a northern fish," she sings, replying to the lover who says he's "constant as a Northern Star." She laughs self-consciously at this speck of juvenilia.
Just three months later, Mitchell shared the stage of London's Paris Theatre with Taylor. They were smitten - in a few weeks, she'd pass the holidays with his family in North Carolina, caroling, buying records, and painting his portrait. "I'm not gonna be singing right away, but I might breathe heavy," mutters Taylor as he tunes, just before they unveil the near-finished version of this song about her ex. There are no more fish in the first verse, only a scathing rebuke to the lover's swagger: "Constantly in the darkness - where is that at?" she sings, the withering glare almost audible. "If you want me, I'll be in the bar." It's a snapshot of a breakup so crisp and raw you long to stick around to see the wreckage. Mitchell would continue teasing out phrases and contractions before recording "A Case of You" that winter, but at least she had found the mot juste for the song's devastating premise.
Like the Beatles' Get Back, these moments on Volume 2 illustrate the ordinary labor involved in making something that ultimately seems extraordinary. During two home-recording sessions in her New York apartment, for instance, Mitchell sits at the piano or guitar to play or sing, searching for a phrase that might spark a new tune. She tries two different strumming patterns (including one clearly indebted to her old friend Neil Young) for "Midnight Cowboy," an early character study of a cosplaying and hopeless urban outlaw. Both missed their mark; until now, the song never made it to record.
And in a moment of vulnerability, Mitchell admits during her Carnegie Hall debut she's "just begun to pick out a few tunes on the piano" but has only one finished. (The exquisite version of "Blue Boy" that follows her confession was actually recorded two weeks later.) It's strangely reassuring to imagine a moment where Mitchell is just learning to write at the piano, not yet a master. She was conjuring fundamental new paradigms for herself on an instrument that soon became critical to her career.
Mitchell was contemporaneously drilling down on the precise language and arrangements that marked the best work of her first four albums. Several early songs here border on logorrhea, with verses overloaded in alliteration and internal rhyme and rafts of florid images that crowd out the song's conceit. Recorded within a four-year window, both "I Had a King" and "River" deal with former partners who have been dispatched. During that gap, though, Mitchell shaped the sense of economy that made possible a self-indictment as sharp and simple as "I'm so hard to handle/I'm selfish and I'm sad."
Early in the set, Mitchell adds overdubs of peacock harp to a home demo of "Roses Blue," its prickly notes meant to reinforce the song's spooky mystique. She replicated the effect on 1969's Clouds, but she soon dropped the desire to overcomplicate her songs. Time and again on Volume 2, the alternate versions of Mitchell classics - "River," "Urge for Going," "The Fiddle and the Drum," "Blue Boy," "Ladies of the Canyon" - include some unnecessary element, like the French horns that end "River."
Perhaps her 1968 appearance on John Peel's Top Gear - the only Peel Session of her career, where he introduces her with a review that lauds her as the "yang to Bob Dylan's yin" - helped convince her that she didn't need to accessorize her sound. The John Cameron Group cluttered "Chelsea Morning" with bass and flute, distracting from the wild swings of her voice. When she subsequently issued the song on Clouds, it was just guitar and voice, as she even sang her own jubilant backing vocals. Mitchell's music would get plenty ornate as she marched through the '70s; her austerity in this era afforded these songs intimacy and, in turn, gravity.
Though most of these revelations-via-revisions arrive through home demos or discarded studio sessions, the lengthy live sets - or occasional excerpts of them - that dominate much of Volume 2 show another kind of growth. Mitchell is dark and alluring at Ann Arbor's Canterbury House in early March 1968, but she's at ease in the Ottawa coffeehouse and cultural locus Le Hibou a week later. She's actively parsing new ideas, working through several songs that never made an album. "Dr. Junk" is the hilarious and tender romp for a Southern dentist who collected spare car parts. "Come to the Sunshine" is a mystic ode to the magic that love may impart, especially the ineffable feeling that you're temporarily connected to some kind of cosmic wonder. "Share in the quiet of knowing," she urges.
Jimi Hendrix sat at Mitchell's feet that night at Le Hibou, twiddling the knobs of his new tape machine as he recorded her set. "Fantastic girl with heaven words," he wrote after they stayed up late, partying and smoking and listening to recordings he'd made. (His tape machine and her performance were stolen the next day; the reel miraculously resurfaced just as work on Volume 2 began.)
That anecdote of colliding young superstars is a reminder that this is Mitchell in sheer ascendance. Less than a year later, after all, she made her Carnegie Hall debut, her parents and Bob Dylan among those in attendance at a masterful $5 gig, included here in all its glory. Fans throw her love notes, protest when she suggests the concert is almost done, and sing along to "The Circle Game." A year after that, she strums her strings and pushes her voice to such extremes during "Big Yellow Taxi" you worry she may break both. The take comes from the 1970 benefit concert that helped launch Greenpeace, so Mitchell is emphasizing the environmental seriousness that underpins (and also undermines) the refrain of a song so gleeful it can scan as a gimmick. Witnessing bits of Mitchell's stepwise transformation into a public figure - occasionally fleeting, sometimes reluctant - is Volume 2's other point of true inspiration.
The live performances may start to seem repetitious or perhaps like filler, especially when taken alongside Volume 1. How many slightly different versions of "Conversation," "Gift of the Magi," or "Marcie" - just a few of the staples that appear on both sets, sometimes multiple times - must one endure before hearing unreleased gems like "Hunter" (a great song about a stray cat) or "Jeremy" (a great song about a stray addict)?
To date, the lone flaw of these Joni Mitchell Archives is that they often feel like monstrous information dumps as opposed to carefully constructed paths on which you might wander and delight. Even Cameron Crowe's longform interviews, which shape the bulk of the liner notes for both sets, feel burdensome. There are amazing tidbits, of course, like Mitchell's contentious but caring relationship with Georgia O'Keeffe and her disdain for David Crosby. They're often surrounded by loads of routine Mitchell lore.
That, of course, is picking the tiniest nits. It is good to read Mitchell speak, which she rarely does publicly as she nears 80, and to hear her search for her own essence at this pivotal moment, even when it feels like déjà vu. Given the famous vulnerability of her first half-dozen albums, which she actually laments during an on-tape conversation during Volume 2, how much more could there be?
"I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes," she later told Crowe in Rolling Stone of this era. Whatever else remains unheard may feel like Mitchell's very marrow, something much too intimate for any of us to know. There's so much to hear and ponder on the generous Volume 2; even if it leaves you wanting more, that absence of deeper secrets is crucial to the set's humanizing effect. At last, Volume 2 shows the work behind the beginning of Joni Mitchell's masterworks, at times so seemingly effortless even her collaborators wondered if it existed.
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